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Jane Casey on YA Crime Novels

Writing YA Crime Novels from a Teen Perspective: The Challenges and the Rewards

By Jane Casey

‘It’s fair to say that most sixteen-year-olds don’t get to investigate murders. In an ideal world, the police deal with the dead bodies. In the invented town of Port Sentinel, where my Jess Tennant series is set, Inspector Dan Henderson is determined to protect Port Sentinel’s reputation at all costs. There are plenty of shady goings-on, such as bullying, drug-taking, rape and murder, but only one person is interested. That person is Jess, a girl who doesn’t know when to stop asking questions even when her own safety is in doubt.

Everything I write turns to crime, even when I’m writing for a teenage readership. With Jess, I wanted to create a heroine who was strong-minded – a funny, feisty girl with a heart of gold and an unshakeable moral core. There aren’t many teenage detectives around (Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars, and Simon Mason’s Garvie Smith come to mind). But teenagers are more likely to be victims of violent crime than adults. They are also more likely to commit violent crimes than adults. Anything can be a matter of life and death. A teenager’s motives often spring from passion rather than cold logic. That’s fertile ground for a crime writer.

A decent crime novel needs to be credible. Wedge your hero or heroine into an unlikely situation and you lose the reader’s faith early on. My other series character, Maeve Kerrigan, is a police detective who can walk into a crime scene and start taking notes without being questioned. Jess has to work around the edges of the crime. Getting her involved can be a challenge. In How To Fall Jess investigates her cousin’s mysterious death – a family tragedy. In Bet Your Life she stumbles upon half-dead Seb Dawson lying in the road and knows the official story of a hit-and-run is a lie. And Jess can’t resist a mystery.

Jess’s great advantage, of course, is that she is a teenager. The other young characters talk to her, when they would actively avoid the police. She hears gossip. She notices when someone behaves oddly. She goes to the right parties, wearing the right clothes, and even if she kisses the wrong boy sometimes she is slowly but surely finding her feet in Port Sentinel.

With a few exceptions the adult characters in this series are far more irresponsible, unwise, unprincipled and disgraceful than the teenagers. Despite her youth, Jess is a voice of reason, clear-eyed and courageous. Operating outside an official investigation gives her the leeway to take risks, take chances and make mistakes. If she was older, or a police officer, she wouldn’t be able to do half the things she takes for granted, and these books wouldn’t be half as much fun.’


A big thank you to Jane Casey for taking the time to let us know about the differences in writing from a teenager’s perspective. Want to know more about writing Young Adult crime fiction? We asked Niall Leonard to tell us more.

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